Credit: Emily Blundell Owers

When Annie broke up with Hannah she did it so casually that Hannah felt as if they’d jogged across the level crossing into another reality.

“We should stop doing this while we still can,” she’d said. “Before we have to.”

They were moving side by side through the leafy suburbs of the village, the evening air cool and the asphalt still warm enough that the stink of bitumen lingered. Blue haze at the limits of what the light let them see. Hannah could hear the sound of their trainers on the road and the breath rushing into her lungs.

“Stop what?” she’d asked, and their feet beat on.

“Before uni does it for us. I think we should stop.”

“The running?”

“Don’t be dumb Hannah. All of this.”

And Hannah had stopped. Annie carried on ahead for a few steps. She paused before she turned to face Hannah and when she did she folded her arms and leaned back into her left heel.

“Don’t make this harder than it has to be,” she’d said, in a flat, prepared voice that mimicked kindness to hide a sort of nervous impatience and failed at both. Hannah had thought that she sounded like one of their mothers, although she couldn’t remember either of them saying such a thing. The reflectors on Annie’s running gear made her look alien in the harsh light of the crossing, the two white lamps on either side throwing her face into shadow, over-exposing the pink of their matching leg-warmers. Sharp shoulders to Annie’s nylon jacket. Gleaming curve of the single ear-bud.

“You understand, don’t you Hannah?” Annie was biting the side of her lip. “It’s been fun experimenting, but…”

Hannah thinks of Mr. Hughes reading from their textbook: “…in experiments comparing physical properties of entangled particles we find the data to be correlated. Now class, correlation here doesn’t mean what it would if you or I used it. When we say there’s correlation, what we’re talking about is two things that have a linear association. But in science there are all kinds of non-linear relationships that we can describe. I want you all to turn to page a-hundred and four…”

Hannah having to read over the textbook’s explanation again to try and find where casual relationships between data sets were explained. Seeing the letters s and u slip under her eye, the lightbulb moment of realising she was reading about causal connections, had seen the phrase she had wanted to see while imagining Annie sat behind her and staring. Looking over her shoulder to see Annie, sat behind her and staring. Not looking away.

It had excited Hannah then. At the level crossing it was devastating.

On page 105 …as an example, consider two electrons that have become entangled as a result of an interaction. Casual as causal. Linear and non-linear relationships. What happens to one electron affects the other, no matter how far apart they are, forever.

Someone said, “But I love you” and Hannah realised it was her and felt she might fall into the darkness behind Annie’s head forever, no stars visible in the LED-polluted sky.

“You don’t mean that. You think you do but you don’t.”

And Hannah has said, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” and as she said it she realised she was crying unattractive tears, that the tension in her body and her tight fists must look threatening, and that she had not said it but shouted it.

The side of Annie’s face where she was biting her lip had been trembling.

“You think you mean that,” she’d said again, “but you don’t.” Then she’d turned on her heel and jogged away into the dark. Between the lycra of her shorts and the top of each leg-warmer was a line of skin, the soft flesh behind her knees, that flashed on and off as she ran, transparencies along the contours of her tendons gleaming like the plastic reflectors on the crossing’s raised gates, freckles like the patina of a wren’s egg. Like sun-spots.

Hannah had emptied her lungs out in a noise like some creature she couldn’t name and then crumpled. She wasn’t sure how long she crouched awkwardly on the crossing, but her parents were not concerned by how late she came home until they saw her expression.

When they were together Hannah had never been sure if the running was to keep what they were doing hidden, if Annie was ashamed. But she hadn’t been able to imagine Annie feeling shame. Her wants seemed only to be righteous things. Unflinching.

They’d run out into the countryside and nothing would happen, to the point Hannah almost thought she’d got the wrong idea, until one day Annie was undressing and everything was changing. Lithe shadows. Waxy leaves. Mud in unusual places in the shower after. Finding a friction burn on her hip, hoping for more. Gooseflesh thinking about it.

It happened plenty often when they went running after that, and they’d gone running plenty often.

Once, Annie had been just ahead, had halted abruptly. In the dirt on the path ahead of them, two swallows, one curiously still, the other all manic fluttering, all violence. Crazed. It had transfixed them. The closest Hannah could come to leaving was to take Annie’s hand and hold it, knuckles interlocking, some tight feeling building behind her sternum, staring at the blaze of feathers, bright blue in the cloud of dust. Thinking the words ultraviolet and violence. Eventually the manic thing became a bird again, looked about as if it had noticed them, then darted away. Only the one swallow then, crumpled. Unmoving.

She had got out of her post-run shower at home to find a blinking light on her phone. The message from Annie was a hyperlink: “Homosexual necrophilia in swallows.” A male thing. That had seemed important. Hannah had messaged back – “Fucking men.”

“I know right! Just what I was thinking.”

“Great minds.”

“It’s like we finish each other’s…”

Hannah had messaged back, “…sentience.” Annie had replied with a wink.

That wink had made Hannah think of Annie in class when they’d covered the uncertainty principle, saying with perfect innocence, “Sir, wasn’t Heisenberg a Nazi? Didn’t he try to build an atom bomb for them, sir?” The thrill of it, that stare trained on Mr. Hughes in his wool tie as he tried to deflect the question. But Annie had said that knowing if Heisenberg had been a conspirator was important to her moral education and Mr. Hughes had responded that the word was collaborator, and that this was physics, not history. Annie had packed her bag up at the end with a smug ferocity.

“He knows I’m right. Fucking men. You know Heisenberg’s mother went and had a nice cosy chat with Himmler’s to get the SS off his back? Let’s skip stats, I want to go running.” Something dangerous in her eyes.

On another run they’d stopped to catch the sun falling through a break in the woodland canopy. Annie had stripped to her shorts, convinced Hannah down to her sports bra then stretched out on the dead needles with her head in Hannah’s lap, Hannah backed up against flaking pine-bark.

They’d heard someone; jogging footsteps behind them that approached and then slowed down, and as Hannah had started to tense Annie had said steadily, softly, without even opening her eyes, “I count to three, then we both look at him. One, two…”

Him being taken aback. Him looking away. The prickle across her scalp at the power. Imagining as he’d looked away how their heads turning together must have seemed like something from the kind of lo-fi horror films that Annie revelled in, and in that moment Hannah had thought of the two of them together watching one in Hannah’s bedroom, on her bed, half-naked Annie lounging over her legs just like now. Hannah pointing to the static of an old TV, re-rendered on her laptop in the background of a scene, telling Annie what it was.

“The CMB.”

“The what now Einstein?”

“The way their set goes like that, it’s the background radiation from the big bang. It’s billions of years old.”

The thrill of it. Annie leaning into the look, fierce beside her, the man turning away from them, running on, shame-faced. It had felt cruel but Annie had said fuck him, you were either ashamed of what you wanted or you weren’t, and when you took what you wanted who cared if it made those who didn’t take it feel that same shame, and Hannah had thought yes, okay, yes. Ordinary cruelty. Background radiation. Swallows in the dirt not fighting.

On page 114 …in informal parlance correlation is synonymous with dependence.

The night of the break-up ends with Hannah saying their names in her head on the edge of sleep. Hannah and Annie. Annie and Hannah. Annie and Hannah and Hannah and Anna and And. We finish each other’s.

The weeks after are bad. The months after not so much. Early on, Hannah’s mother comes home in a rage. She has been to see Annie’s mother to talk about the fact that their girls, well their girls were seeing each other and now they aren’t and maybe, as their mothers, they should talk about how best to help them both. Annie’s mother has told Hannah’s mother that she is lying, and that her daughter is lying, and that Annie has exams to focus on. That Annie’s family has enough problems as it is, she’d said. When Hannah hears this, the running makes more sense. The fact that they so rarely spent time at Annie’s makes more sense.

“I hope their house catches fire,” Hannah’s mother spits in the kitchen, pacing.

“You don’t mean that,” Hannah says, and then the image of Annie illuminated at the crossing flashes into her mind and she breaks down all over again.

When she takes up running again it hurts the first few times, but she is addicted now, and she has exams to focus on. The endorphins and the summer nights and the sense of what she is accomplishing.

She wears her father’s high-end headphones and he lets her without a word. The seasonal heat means she doesn’t even look at the leg-warmers, so she isn’t prepared when her streaming service plays her a song she’d last heard at school through one bud of Annie’s headphones.

Before it ends she hits repeat and keeps moving.

They’d watched the music video after sex one time, as odd and as necessary as all the cigarettes lit by men afterwards in films. That one time making each subsequent public viewing into something charged. On the bus surrounded by neighbours or at a party with other students. Hannah had thought the album’s title included the word education, double-checked herself when Annie said seduction instead, hadn’t been surprised to find she was wrong.

She should have turned right down any of the last three roads.

Watching the singer move on screen, wearing a waxy green jacket, turn a giant cube to reveal legs in rhododendron-coloured leggings. Wondering if her Annie were more turned on by the woman on the screen or the woman next to her. Wondering then if maybe this was usual. Like the vinyl of experimental bands that Annie’s cooler friends at college liked, where Hannah wasn’t sure if the glitching and loops were part of the point or the needle distorting the record; whether she would be chided for stopping it, or for not. Whether it was the same song on repeat, playing over and over.

Her mother rings and she cancels the call.

It is dark now, and she isn’t sure she hasn’t run past the place until she finds it. She realises how angry she is. Annie’s house looms large against the black. She can see people moving around behind the blinds of an illuminated upstairs room. She moves toward them. The gravel crunches underfoot. She is a spy whose presence disrupts. This conspiracy will shatter the empire.

Someone switches on the light behind the bay window, and a rhododendron the colour of their leg-warmers erupts into life in front of her. Rhododendron sounds like a shape in a higher dimension. A 4D polyhedron. She shouldn’t be here. She ought to go.

She picks up a stone from the drive.

Behind her a voice says, “I don’t think you want to do that, miss.” Hannah turns to look behind her, her fingers working the hunk of quartz like someone chewing their lip. The community support officer is a young man and he has his hands held up to her like he’s calming an animal. Bright white LEDs shine in her face, a cluster of them bull-clipped to the left lapel of his fluorescent jacket.

Ahead of Hannah are a string of destructive relationships; a 2:1 in Chemistry at a university she hadn’t planned on; the starting years of a career doing site checks for companies that supply hazardous chemicals. Ahead of Hannah are rows with her parents over her obvious drinking and how she never visits home. And, eventually, ahead of her there will be a woman employed by a museum that Hannah visits for work. She will be patient and kind and she will be the one who gives Hannah her number. Her name will be Zoe.

On their fourth date Zoe will tell Hannah to meet her at work. The room that Zoe’s texted instructions send her to will be closed for refurbishment – white sheets displays, expansive white walls, high white ceiling. A monster in the centre. It rests on the elbows of its vast, leathery wings, the colour of ivory. Glass replicas of yellow reptile eyes examining Hannah from behind a beak that could break her in half or impale her. Zoe tells her that its name is Quetzalcoatlus northropi and Hannah knows as she stares up at the two metre high model that the noise it made 70 million years ago is the noise a young woman made one night at a level crossing when she emptied her lungs. Hannah will look at Zoe and see her taking it all in. Looking from the creature and then to Hannah and then back again.

One day she will be sitting in bed with Zoe and receive an email from her father linking to an article on entanglement in the eyes of birds, how they might use it to guide their migrations, and she will feel like some vast 4D object has finished its long rotation, has turned to an angle where is can be seen in 3D space again.

In her immediate future there will be a row, and a police caution.

In the most fundamental experiment of quantum mechanics the act of observing a particle collapses all its possibilities into a certainty. The Hannah standing in front of Annie’s house feels trapped like that little strand of perhaps. She thinks of Heisenberg building a bomb and wishes she’d told Annie that in some histories he was deliberately slowing the process, even if there’s no way to know if it’s true. She thinks how there are worse things than breaking a window, or the law.

“Don’t make this harder than it has to be,” the officer says, and Hannah makes a decision.

Tom Vickers

' writing has previously appeared in The Stinging Fly and The Butcher's Dog, among other publications. He is working on a collection of short fiction about the Anthropocene and social justice and a novel about contemporary communes and the commercialisation of the climate change movement. He is a graduate of the creative writing programme at the University of Oxford.

All contributions from Tom Vickers

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